The gathering storm

Irish Land League poster from the 1880s

Irish Land League poster from the 1880s

The threat of another famine in 1879, within living memory of the horror and catastrophe of the Great Famine some 29 years earlier, brought renewed terror to the vulnerable tenant farmers in the west of Ireland. This time it was not just the humble potato, but severe weather conditions which devastated crops and feed stuffs over a three year period. Farm incomes dropped dramatically, landlords fussed that rents would not be paid. Whereas some landlords were patient, others warned that evictions would follow if rents were not paid on time.

Beginning in 1876, the people endured three years of poor harvests due to bad weather. The incessant rain prevented them saving their turf, their only source of fuel. Storms curtailed the delivery of food to remote coastal regions, and to the islands. The collapse of the kelp industry took away the only source of employment for many families in the west.

The weather in 1877 was equally bad resulting in a poor potato crop and other foodstuffs. Rents were unpaid, and debts mounted up. There was a little improvement the following year; but from October 1879 it became severely cold, with below average temperatures recorded for each month until the following autumn. Members of the London and American press who visited the west, were appalled by the poverty they witnessed.

In addition there was exceptional rainfall. An official report indicated that the mean temperature for the year was three degrees below average, with ‘unusually clouded skies and deficient sunshine and rainfall considerably in excess of average’.* This was not just an Irish phenomenon. From 1874, bad weather devastated harvests all over Europe. The effect by 1878 at home was that many Irish farmers were simply unable to pay their rent, particularly in the poorer and wetter parts of Connacht. Unlike other parts of Europe, however, the Irish land tenure system was inflexible in times of hardship.

‘Truly imposing’

But this time, the Irish farmer was not going to go quietly as his parents had done during the Great Famine. Revolution was in the air. On November 2 1878 The Connaught Telegraph reported the first meeting of the Mayo Tenants Defence Association meeting in Castlebar where the demand that the ‘Land of Ireland for the people of Ireland’ was first made. This led to a series of monster meetings, and the unmistakable feeling of excitement as the people began to take charge of their destiny. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 attended that first of a series of ‘monster meetings’ at Irishtown, near Claremorris on April 20 1879. The Connaught Telegraph caught the atmosphere with its colourful reportage :

Since the days of O'Connell a larger public demonstration has not been witnessed than that of Sunday last. About 1 o'clock the monster procession started from Claremorris, headed by several thousand men on foot – the men of each district wearing a laurel leaf or green ribbon in hat or coat to distinguish the several contingents.

At 11 o'clock a monster contingent of tenant-farmers on horseback drew up in front of Hughes's hotel, showing discipline and order that a cavalry regiment might feel proud of. They were led on in sections, each having a marshal who kept his troops well in hand. Messrs P W Nally, J W Nally, H French, and M Griffin, wearing green and gold sashes, led on their different sections, who rode two deep, occupying, at least, over an Irish mile of the road. Next followed a train of carriages, brakes, carts, etc. led on by Mr Martin Hughes, the spirited hotel proprietor, driving a pair of rare black ponies to a phaeton, taking Messrs JJ Louden and J Daly. Next came Messrs O'Connor, J Ferguson, and Thomas Brennan in a covered carriage, followed by at least 500 vehicles from the neighbouring towns.

On passing through Ballindine the sight was truly imposing, the endless train directing its course to Irishtown – a neat little hamlet on the boundaries of Mayo, Roscommon, and Galway.

Two Quakers

On October 21 1879 the Irish National Land League was founded at the Imperial Hotel, Castlebar. At that famous meeting Charles Stewart Parnell was elected president of the League; Michael Davitt, Andrew Kettle and Thomas Brennan its honorary secretaries. This united practically all the different strands of land agitation and tenant rights movements under a single organisation.

I have commented on several occasions that over the following 20 years, the Land League won extraordinary freedoms for Irish tenant farmers. But it also had its dark side. Despite appeals from Parnell for non-violence, the murders of landlords, and their bailiffs, was commonplace. There were vicious evictions scenes, fights, protests, violence against property and livestock, and boycotts. Large numbers of police and military marched into isolated districts to protect process servers and bailiffs as they went about their business, evicting tenants for non-payment of rents.

But the threat of violence came not only from landlords and the courts, in some cases it came directly from neighbours. Last week I published a statement showing that the murder of Peter Doherty on his Carrigan farm, near Craughwell, on November 2 1881, had nothing to do with ‘land-grabbing’. On April 24 of that same year John Lydon and his son Martin were dragged from their beds in Bannogaes, Letterfrack, and shot in front of their family. The Joyce family of Maamtrasna were shot in their beds on August 17 1882.

Watching all this were two men, both Quakers, who in their own individual ways would try to help rural communities as they struggled with poverty and despair. William Edward Forster and James Hack Tuke first met as they sailed to America in 1845. They travelled extensively within the United States and Canada staying with Quaker families, and studying all manner of things, including education and charitable institutions. With his father Forster had distributed funds, raised by the Quakers in northern England, in Connemara during the Great Famine. It had made a deep impression on him. He was determined to help Ireland find its path to prosperity. I recently told how he entered politics, and in 1880 was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland. But his career ended in tears when his zeal for law and order did not meet the rapidly changing circumstances brought on by the Land War. However, between 1880 and 1884, James Hack Tuke gave remarkable assistance to thousands of Connemara families, and I will try to tell his unusual story during the next two weeks.**

NOTES: * The Fenian leader, and powerful American lobbyist, John Devoy, during his extended visit to Ireland in the spring of 1879 , claimed that he never saw a clear sky! I am taking these details from Pat Finnegan’s Loughrea - That Den of Infamy, which I have referred to in recent weeks.

** I have gleaned most of the above from Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill’s essay from Mr Tuke’s Fund - Connemara Emigration in the 1880s, published by


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